In some ways, the answer to this question could be: because we are human. Our powerful brains are problem-solving machines, always working away at the difficulties we face and trying to help us resolve them. This is a good thing, helping us find our path through life's many challenges; making us protective, thoughtful parents; solving problems at work, with our finances or in our love life. When thinking about why we worry, this is an important place to start – worry, per se, is not a bad thing.
What is less helpful is when we worry to excess, spending hours a day fretting about every aspect of our life. Or when that worry comes at 3am, keeping us from precious sleep while we chew over problems best left till the morning. And worry is especially unhelpful when it makes daily life unbearable, because we are so caught up in anxious, obsessional thinking about everything we do or say – and particularly about the myriad ways in which things that are important to us might go wrong.
In cognitive therapy, this is known as 'catastrophising' – when we constantly jump to the worst-case scenario, assuming that things will always turn out badly. Catastrophising is an unhelpful thinking style associated with every kind of anxiety problem (which makes sense when you understand the anxiety formula, explained in this post). It is also a feature of depression, as depressive thinking is overwhelmingly negative, so we always assume things will go badly for us.
Chronic worry is particularly associated with generalised anxiety disorder, which can make life very upsetting and difficult for people – but is treatable with cognitive therapy. One of the first things I do with my worried clients is to explain the difference between productive and unproductive worry. Unproductive worry is when we 'ruminate' about our problems, anxious thoughts going round and round in our head without finding any helpful answers or solutions. Productive worry is when we engage in focused problem-solving that leads to constructive solutions.
If you have a problem with worry, try this simple CBT technique today:
Take a worry break
If you are engaging in unproductive worry – for example lying awake fretting about your daughter's disappointing GCSE results at 3am – tell yourself firmly that you will take a 'worry break' the next day when you can think about this problem as much as you want.
Then get up (briefly – you are already awake!), find a half-hour slot in the following day and write Worry Break in your diary. Then follow these two simple rules:
1) In order to reward yourself with this break, you're not allowed to worry about your daughter until then. If your mind wanders to that subject (as it probably will), tell yourself firmly 'I am not going to think about this now, because I will focus on the problem tomorrow.'
2) During the worry break, your worrying must be productive. That means you have to come up with some solutions to your daughter's problems, not just fret about them. If you are struggling to come up with solutions, try talking it over with a trusted friend or family member – it's often easier for other people to think rationally about our problems, as they are not so emotionally charged for them.
If you stick to this regularly, you will find your upsetting, unproductive worrying reduces significantly. And if you would like to book a session with me, email firstname.lastname@example.org